Drawing the Line: Redistricting in Ohio

By Mark Grauhuis

Every ten years, the ruling political party sets about redrawing congressional districts, slicing, dicing and piecemealing in order to give their team the upper hand in upcoming elections. The redistricting process determines how your community is defined along political lines; who you have the opportunity to vote for (members of Congress, state legislators, and many city council and school board members are elected from districts); what kinds of policies and issues get debated; and how the complex set of challenges we face during the ongoing global financial crisis are handled (or not).

When district lines are drawn voters are grouped in one district and others are separated into different districts. Whichever group has more votes within a district usually decides which representative wins. The redistricting process itself is usually marked by secrecy, self-dealing and backroom logrolling, with either of the two major parties seeking to maximize the number of seats to win. The trick is to create a large number of seats that are reasonably safe for the majority party and a smaller number of districts extremely safe for the minority party. This usually results in most legislative districts being solidly held by one party and uncompetitive in the general election. It also means that, if you live in a solidly X or Y district and vote in opposition, your vote simply does not ‘count’ as much as much as your political adversaries who (always) choose to consent with the district’s general voting patterns.

Under the present system, the ultimate distribution of seats in the state legislature may not reflect the overall popular vote totals in legislative elections. In a shocking antidemocratic fashion, politicians are able to choose their voters and incumbents and challengers can be effectively eliminated.

Partisan redistricting only adds to the growing number of uncompetitive legislative elections, overrepresentation of the dominant party in the legislature, and greater polarization in state government.

Most concerning, is the fact that the present system leads to the dilution of minority votes, which has the effect of dividing our communities. Research shows that single-member districts do not operate as some magical remedy for exclusion of minorities from a fair share of seats in the nation’s legislative bodies. Rather, minorities may be residentially dispersed but can be politically united. These communities are perfectly capable, if given half a chance, of choosing their own representatives when they are provided with appropriate electoral tools. But, talk to our ruling bipartisan officials and you would never believe this to be true.

Ohio’s hyper-partisan redistricting process has serious implications for wresting democratic control away from the people who need it most. In the 1960s, Ohio established a 99-member state house of representatives with two-year terms and a 33-member state senate with staggered four-year terms, with both chambers’ representation based on population. It also adopted the Reapportionment Board to redraw the boundaries of the state legislative districts after each decennial census, composed of five members, the Auditor of State, one legislative Democrat, and one legislative Republican.

Whichever party wins two of the three statewide offices controls the redistricting process for state legislative seats.

The redrawing of U.S. House district boundaries is done by an act of the state legislature subject to the approval of the Governor. If one party controls the Ohio House, the Ohio Senate, and the governorship, it can maximize the number of seats drawn so as to favor the dominant party. When there is split control, the two parties must necessarily limit their aspirations and arrive at some sort of compromise in congressional redistricting.

The five-member Ohio Apportionment Board is responsible for updating the legislative lines, which is known as reapportionment. The board is composed of Gov. John Kasich, Husted and Auditor David Yost, all Republicans.

That is, Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly will be responsible for drawing the congressional district boundaries. Republican leaders in the Ohio House and Senate will choose a representative to the board, as will Democratic leaders, to round out the five-member panel. This group will draw the lines for 99 House districts and 33 Senate districts, each made up of three contiguous House districts. Candidates who are running in 2012 for county commissioner, sheriff, prosecutor, engineer, recorder, auditor, clerk of courts and coroner need to have their petitions filed and certified by Dec. 7. It is a near certainty that Republicans will eliminate one Democratic district – U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s Cleveland-area 10th District has been targeted because it features some of the bold progressive viewpoints that its political leader has helped foster there.

In the 2010 election, Republicans won 13 of Ohio’s 18 congressional districts. But Ohio’s lack of population growth is costing it two seats, meaning state lawmakers must redraw only 16 districts. The legislative task force has allocated $130,000 each to legislative Democrats and Republicans to pay for staff and equipment related to the redistricting process. However, many activists and community leaders are concerned that the real issue is a lack of any representation for low-income and poor families and individuals living in urban areas, neither of whom currently have a significant voice in the two major parties and whose specific demands tend to fall on deaf ears when it comes to shaping the vision of Cincinnati’s future.

Most Ohio legislative districts are solidly held by one party and uncompetitive in the general election. Noncompetitive elections can lead elected officials to be less responsive to voters because they know they are “safe.” And because there is no competition, no real issues tend to be raised in campaigns, and there is no reason for incumbents to listen to voters. They are much more likely to listen to their contributors, corporations, and special interests.

To address these serious problems, the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting will hold a contest this summer inviting anyone to use 2010 census data to redraw the districts. The completion of the census might present a challenge to Ohio elections officials because states must adjust their legislative boundaries and congressional district lines to reflect population changes.

A coalition of groups including the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Ohio Citizen Action is sponsoring a map-drawing contest, where private citizens can draw maps of congressional districts and state legislative districts using publicly-available software and the same population and voting data used by public officials. The hope is to build a base for future reform of redistricting standards. Submitted plans will be judged by a computer formula that weighs whether a proposal preserves county lines, its compactness, its competitiveness based on partisan makeup, and whether a district’s representation matches its balance between Blue and Red (what is, regrettably, called “representation”).

The winner will be submitted to the legislature for consideration.

The Ohio secretary of state’s office also will develop a website for public comment on the redistricting process.

It may be some measure of Ohio voters’ disillusionment and defeatism with regard to bipartisan electoral politics that no communities currently have a strong voice demanding proportional representation as a sensible remedy for the problem of gerrymandering. We should know and reflect on our own history and be proud of the days when fair representation was possible in Ohio. In the Progressive Era, proportional representation elections were used in 22 cities in the United States, yet in our time only Cambridge, Massachusetts kept its council elections by propositional representation in the wake of a steady loss of popular participation in systematic reform campaigns.

Party list systems and the Single Transferable Vote were developed in revolutionary nineteenth century England (also the source of plurality voting practices), and are sometimes called “choice voting” or “preference voting.” They have been proven to deliver representation to 90% or more of the voters, drastically improve voter turnout, provide greater stability in government, and have been tried and tested in many social democratic European countries.

In 1915, Ashtabula, Ohio became the first American city to adopt proportional representation elections, as a result of strong activist leaders (and an unusually large component of labor leaders) who were sick and tired of partisan misrepresentation and party duopoly. These were supported elsewhere in the state by courageous men and women who fought “boss rule” of their cities by educating citizens about direct democracy, promoting referendum and recall, demanding popular election of senators, women’s suffrage, railroad rate regulation, municipal ownership of utilities, protective
labor legislation, tax equity, and home rule for cities.

In subsequent adoptions of home rule charters, Cincinnati, Hamilton and Toledo elected path-breaking African Americans to their city councils, while in Cleveland the one African American on council was joined by others as the black population grew. This effectively held their charter sponsors to efficient administration implemented in the framework of more representative — and therefore more responsive — policy-making. The level of factionalism was significantly reduced because minorities won a share of council seats, and there was greater solidarity and cooperation between campaigns to the benefit of the people.

They did away with the winner-take-all voting system, which betrays its origin in the business corporation model of competition and sees so many candidates simply lose in plurality contests.

Currently, if there are three or more candidates, close to two-thirds of the voters may not win any representation in the elected governmental body. When a minority candidate is elected in this electoral context, it is usually
the majority’s choice of who should represent the minority.

During the Cold War on the homefront, when the civil rights movement helped foster the rise of many popular Left-leaning black politicians, proportional representation was seen by the ruling members of society as distinctly “un-American” – Tammany Hall famously called it a “Stalin Frankenstein” that would inevitably lead to the election of Communists all across the nation! And today, both racist and anti-working class gerrymandering are used to handicap certain groups and play a shameful role in Ohio’s electoral politics.

Under proportional representation (“free voting,” as Cleveland’s Tom Johnson called it a century ago), even the most alienated or disillusioned citizen could chose to vote based on which voices they would also like to be heard, and go to booth believing that even if their first vote didn’t count for much, the second and third would.

In order to understand what happened to defeat this system in Ohio one has only to look at the explicitly racist and red-baiting campaigns – often linked to prohibition and, later, “the War on Communism” – which historically followed the momentum and success stories state-wide. These reactive forces were aimed deliberately at disenfranchising the city’s poor, black and immigrant citizens, and ensuring a reserve army of labor for the wealthiest industrialists.

This is not to say that the voices for democracy went down without a fight. In Hamilton, Ohio, in 1944, voters rejected a fourth repeal attempt. In Toledo in 1946, proportional representation prevailed again; and again the following year. Significantly, in Cincinnati in 1947, another repeal campaign, led by the Republican organization, linked the progressives and radicals with the ‘red’ menace, using a highly concerted propaganda campaign that included newspapers and billboard advertising, street car cards, posters, placards, leaflets, book matches, personal letters and radio spot announcements.

But even this backlash failed to change voters’ minds on the issue for yet another two years. In white precincts, where many feared the election of black officials, proportional representation lost by a 2 to 1 margin; voters in black precincts supported its retention by 4 to 1. And in 1954, both Democrats and Republicans were defeated in their repeal efforts, but only narrowly. Three years later, Cincinnati finally succumbed.

At the very start of the Twentieth Century, the ‘important’ votes in Cincinnati were collected through small favors in the wards of the major cities, and financed both by contributions from businessmen seeking franchises and tax benefits, and by kickbacks from illegal operators in gambling and prostitution who bought protection for their activities. While this no longer accurately describes the situation, we are still a long way from achieving fair representation, inclusion, and equal opportunities for minorities. Does it not make good democratic sense that our communities select the person we believe will be the most responsive to our needs and concerns? The power to draw Ohio’s legislative and congressional district boundaries should be open and accountable, perhaps best invested in a commission which ideally would be independent and nonpartisan.